Syrian refugees on their way to EU, Serbia-Croatia border“Vetting” is a term rarely used in everyday English. Nevertheless, it has appeared regularly in recent coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis and the mass movement of Middle-Eastern migrants into Europe. Media outlets and government officials have repeatedly discussed vetting as if it were some magical process that grants access to otherwise inaccessible information. But what does vetting really mean?

Simply put, vetting means conducting a background check on someone. If you have ever applied for a credit card or renewed a drivers’ license, you have been vetted. Vetting may consist of conversations with references, as when applying for a job; or it may consist of a review of information found in computerized databases, as when applying for a home loan.

The vetting example most familiar to Americans is when a police officer pulls you over for speeding, asks for a license and registration, then returns to his car and checks a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) database. He can confirm your identity, see how many prior traffic violations you may have committed and make sure you have auto insurance.

The police example highlights some of the difficulties associated with vetting refugees and other people seeking immigration benefits. In the United States, we regularly engage in business and governmental transactions where we furnish personal information.  That data is captured and stored in various databases. When we apply for a drivers’ license the DMV captures our names, photographs, addresses and biographical details. In some cases, our fingerprints are also captured.

Successful vetting is dependent upon access to information that is reliable and verifiable. Therefore, it is relatively easy to vet people who live in the United States. As they go about their daily business, their information is regularly captured and updated – and can be checked against multiple government or commercial databases. It is also relatively easy to vet people who come to America from countries where businesses and government agencies are operated in a manner similar to the United States – as long as their governments are willing to share information with the United States.

Problems arise when attempting to vet people who come from countries where there are few reliable public records or countries that are unwilling to share information. A country may not have reliable records because its government does not have the resources to compile and store them. Sometimes, a country did have accurate records but lost them to war or natural disasters. Certain countries are unwilling to share information with the United States because their own laws prohibit such sharing. Other countries are unwilling to share because they do not have good diplomatic relations with the United States. Therefore, when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) vets immigration applicants it may not have a clear picture of the applicant’s background.

Prior to its civil war, Syria did not share significant amounts of background information on its citizens with the United States. Even if Syria were now willing to share its information, the Syrian civil war has caused the destruction of many government records and very little reliable, verifiable information is currently being compiled either by government or non-governmental organizations operating within the country. As a result, Syrian passports, birth certificates, drivers’ licenses and other government documents cannot be adequately verified.

Although USCIS claims that all Syrian applicants for refugee status are being thoroughly vetted, this is simply untrue.  As noted above, successful vetting is dependent upon access to information that is reliable and verifiable. Because USCIS has limited access to information about the identity of Syrians seeking refugee status, it cannot verify the identities of these applicants. Therefore, it cannot conclusively determine whether an applicant was involved in activities that threaten the safety and security of the United States like terrorism, weapons smuggling or espionage.

Hiding behind jargon connected with the background check process will not conceal the shortcomings of that process. The American public has a right to expect that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will not admit refugees, and other seekers of immigration benefits, to the United States until it is reasonably certain that they pose no threat to those currently residing here. Failing to deny admission to those who have not, or cannot, be completely and thoroughly vetted constitutes a complete abdication of DHS’s responsibilities to secure the borders of the United States and ensure the safety of the American people.